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Dogged by painting: a recent animated film from Spanish director Luis Eduardo Aute offers a highly imaginative treatment of the lives and works of eight painters, from Goya to Frida Kahlo. .
Art in America, Sept, 2002 by Terry Berne

The impressionistic and challenging animated film Un Perro Llamado Dolor (A Dog Named Pain) is a 90-minute, black-and-white feature that audaciously reimagines the relationships of a handful of major painters with their art, their audience, their historical and cultural context, and their erotic lives. The film was written and directed by the Spanish artist and musician Luis Eduardo Aute, who not only drew each frame by hand but also composed much of the complex soundtrack.

Subtitled "Artists and Their Models," the film is divided into seven episodes, or "portraits," focusing on the Spanish painters Goya, Velazquez, Picasso, Dali, Joaquin Sorolla and Julio Romero de Torres, as well as Marcel Duchamp (who shares a segment with Picasso) and Frida Kahlo. The episodes bear whimsical titles such as "Striptease" and "An Immortal, Fake Mirage" (a nod to Orson Welles's documentary F for Fake about the famous forger Elmyr de Hory), while the overall title refers to a pet of Kahlo's. For its narrative stimulus and much of its visual style, A Dog Named Pain harks back to silent films, even if its pictorial inspiration derives indirectly from the painters it depicts.

Some 4,000 pencil-on-paper drawings and five years of work went into the making of the movie, which had its premiere in Spain in September 2001 at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. It had its first U.S. showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, held in New York, May 8-12.

Aute, best known as a singer-songwriter with conceptualist leanings, began his career as an artist and previously directed a half-dozen short films. Some of these, including studies for A Dog Named Pain and a moving pastiche of Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, can be seen in a video (Metamorfosis Amortal) that was released in 1999 to accompany a poetry anthology. These brief animated subjects, which the artist calls "videographs," display the power of the simple but painstaking animation technique that Aute also used for A Dog Named Pain.

In order to create specific movements and gestures of, say, a face, Aute erases parts of an initial drawing--the eyes, a mouth--and then draws minute changes directly in the newly blank area. The corrected drawing is then photographed, and the process is repeated frame by frame. Certain sequences are later treated digitally to add three-dimensional effects and sweeping camera movements. He frequently focuses on faces and uses the play of light and shadow to potent effect. Aute describes his drawings, which are often reminiscent of Goya's "Caprichos" and "Disasters of War," as "figurative but not realist."

In A Dog Named Pain, cinematic images and references play almost as important a role as those of painting. In the longest episode, a dreamlike fantasy of jealousy, seduction, castration and ultimate--but qualified--redemption, references abound to Dali and Luis Bunuel's collaborative film, Un Chien Andalou, and Bunuel's later Simon of the Desert. Set in Dali's home in Cadaques, the episode throws together Dali, his wife Gala, her former husband Paul Eluard, Federico Garcia Lorca and Bunuel. Other cinematic influences are German Expressionism and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein, who makes a cameo appearance in the sequence recounting Aute's apocryphal but psychologically astute version of the triangle formed by Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. In a fit of jealousy, Rivera (in the film) murders the exiled communist With a sickle, all the While being filmed by Eisenstein.

Although A Dog Named Pain is highly symbolic and often difficult to decipher, Aute rejects the characterization "surrealist" for his film, insisting, during an interview for this article, on the rational underpinnings of every event and image, however arcane or mysterious they might seem at first viewing. The film seems to unfurl on several planes, superimposing factual, allegorical and invented elements. The painter-protagonists create and interact in an almost magical ambience where dream and reality mix, anachronisms abound and physical space is not so much the site of painting's assault on the real as it is a stage for dramatic personal, artistic and historical transformations.

Each "portrait" is filled with references to the relevant artist's work, but Aute also draws on such biographical ephemera as anecdotes and photographs. The airplane that features prominently in the Cadaques sequence, for instance, was inspired by a famous 1924 snapshot of Lorca and Bunuel sitting in a amusement park airplane. The persistent intrusion of the instruments and historical personalities of moviemaking itself--Eisenstein in the Kahlo chapter; Welles filming in the Sorolla sequence; Keaton, Chaplin and Groucho Marx in the episode about Duchamp and Picasso--draws attention to the essentially voyeuristic nature of both artistic creation and esthetic enjoyment, as well as to the porous border between artifice and reality.

At one point, in the film's brief coda dedicated to Velazquez, the director's own hand suddenly appears in the picture frame proffering a cigarette lighter, a jarring juxtaposition which is both funny and unnerving. That the lighter echoes various candles, torches and lanterns in works by Goya, Picasso and Duchamp also featured in the film underlines both the continuity of Aute's symbolism and the frequency of such motifs throughout the history, of art.

This instance of a medium commenting ironically on itself is no mere fashionable gesture, however, but the logical esthetic response to Velazquez's complex mise-en-scene in such masterpieces as Las Meninas and Venus del Espejo, the painting featured in the sequence that closes the film. Because of Velazquez's deep perspective, his interest in what is happening away from the center of his compositions and his displacement of the subject relative to the picture plane, Aute has described the painter as the true inventor of cinema. This remark reveals Aute's penchant for the telling anachronism, but also his awareness that art is not so much a continuum as it is a sphere of action that erases or distorts time.

Here may be a key to understanding the liberties Ante takes with the painters whose lives he poetically reinvents. The film's slowly unfurling enchantment is due to Aute's own artistic license, at turns ironic, critical and humorous. He continually yanks his often bewildered subjects into uncannily revealing situations where art, history and erotics meet as equals. In the Goya episode, which opens the film, the elderly painter is seen napping on the lap of his naked lover, who is none other than the woman from his famed Maja Desnuda. His reverie is interrupted first by a swarm of witches who begin to fly around his house, clearly representing the religious obscurantism and superstition in which Spain was sunk during the early 19th century and which Goya depicted so powerfully in the "Caprichos" and "Proverbios." His idyll is further disrupted by rumors of war, as Napoleon's forces approach Madrid. Aute depicts the French general bearing a lightbulb as a symbol of Enlightenment thought.

Soon, however, the painter and his model fall victim to the terror that grips the city. Goya seems to be defending himself with paintbrushes and palette against the irrational forces of both betrayed Enlightenment ideals and the pervasive superstition of the populace. In an imaginative reversal, he and his model suddenly find themselves before the very firing squad he himself immortalized in his Third of May, 1808 and which later inspired Eisenstein's famous execution scene in Battleship Potemkin. Goya and his maja thus suffer in their own flesh the tribulations of war that eventually led the real Goya to his terrible Black Paintings. As Ante explained it to this writer, "For Goya, everything turned into the same dark monster."

If A Dog Named Pain hints at how history invades the personal space created by art, it also explores how art itself encompasses or even generates its own opposite. In an episode titled "The Starry Light of Rrose Selavy," we see a sizable group of people, most wearing sunglasses, who are gazing at Picasso's Guernica. Recognizable among the crowd are Duchamp and a handful of famous celluloid comics, all sans sunglasses. We watch as the crowd slowly fades away, leaving, in Aute's words, just "the artist, the clowns and two children." Next, we accompany the intense gaze of Duchamp as it seems to pierce the very canvas where the torch sustained by Picasso's anguished woman shines. Then we are inside Guernica and as we turn back toward the now invisible spectators, we suddenly find ourselves in a vaguely familiar landscape with a nude woman spread-eagled among foliage and holding aloft a lantern. As we abruptly recognize that we are inside Duchamp's last mysterious installation, Etant donnes, the woman slowly sits up and takes the form of Man Ray's iconic photo-collage Le Violon d'Ingres.

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